Dion Waiters has become the first former Syracuse basketball player to reach the NBA Finals in 40 years.
Waiters’ Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 117-107, to win the Western Conference Finals, 4-1, on Saturday night. Another SU alum, Jerami Grant, logged a game-high 46 minutes and scored 20 points for the Nuggets but it wasn’t enough to stop LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who combined for 65.
Waiters will be the first former Syracuse University basketball player to appear in the NBA Finals since Marty Byrnes in 1980 — also for the Lakers. Byrnes was scoreless in his Game 6 appearance, but his L.A. team beat the Philadelphia 76ers to win the championship.
Besides Byrnes, only two other Syracuse players have ever competed in a NBA Finals: Dennis Duval, who went on to become the city of Syracuse’s police chief, scored one basket in Game 3 of the 1975 finals for the Washington Bullets before losing the series to the Golden State Warriors; and Bill Gabor, who averaged 3.3 points over four games with the Syracuse Nationals in the 1954 finals, which the Nats lost to the Minneapolis Lakers in seven games.
Grant and Waiters also marked just the second time two former Syracuse players have played against each other in the NBA playoffs. Waiters and the Lakers beat Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA Championship, and the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs last month.
Waiters did not play in the Lakers-Nuggets series and missed the last two games of the second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets due to a groin injury, but has been listed “questionable” on the most recent injury report and could appear in the Finals.
Waiters, 28, was the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft after two seasons at SU. He began the NBA season with the Miami Heat but was suspended three times, including after a reported reaction to some marijuana edibles, before joining the Lakers mid-season; he previously played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the OKC Thunder.
Grant, 26, was a key player for the Nuggets, averaging over 34 minutes in the postseason with 11.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft after two seasons with Syracuse, including an Orange run to the Final Four in 2013.
NBC reports Grant will be a free agent this offseason and is expected to get lots of interest around the NBA due to his defensive versatility and improved offensive game. He can defend any position and shot 39% from three-point range over the past two seasons.
The Lakers will face the Heat or the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals on Sept. 30. Miami currently leads Boston, 3-2, in the Eastern Conference Finals.